War and the Wayward

Though this posting isn't specifically about Tim LaHaye, it does go into how his brand of evangelical fundamentalism has influenced American society. Mainly this has to do with the rhetoric of war that has become so central to American politics and evangelical political activism, something LaHaye has tapped into effectively in his political organizing and as a backdrop to his best-selling series of Christian apocalyptic thrillers, Left Behind. In those books, the Jesus depicted is a "Jesus of War," a militant hero Jesus, avenging the sins of mankind with the sword and washing them away in a Armageddon of redeeming blood.

But this should make sense, right? Everything is a war now, isn't it? You've got your War on Terror, your War on Iraq, your War on Drugs, your War on Christmas, a War on Science. And who can forget the War on Spongebob? You pick it, you can make a war on it.

With that thought, it was interesting reading the January 20th New York Times editorial by a liberal evangelical theologian Charles Marsh called "Wayward Christian Soldiers." The essay is important in and of itself, but what struck me kind of funny was the very first line:

In the past several years, American evangelicals, and I am one of them, have amassed greater political power than at any time in our history.

The idea that "political power" should be "amassed" by any one religious group in America's history is, by itself, a scary proposition. Here it is uttered with the kind of matter-of-fact quality that makes it equally alarming. That it even slips out of the mouth so easily of what one could term a liberal evangelical shows just how widespread the feeling in among evangelicals. It has been taken for granted that somehow amassing political power should be the goal of American evangelicals, an implied goal set there, not by evangelicals like Marsh (though they are in a sense complicit), but by a long line of political activist evangelical activists and celebrities such as Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. This trio is certainly not the most sane group of evangelical theologians, but they have been among the most active, vocal and politically visible of hard-line fundamentalist Christians over the last 30 years. Much of America outside evangelical circles sees these people as that faith's representatives, rightly or wrongly. Largely, this is due to the fact that they've been so infrequently chastised by evangelicals themselves for their extremist views on the role of religion in politics, specifically evangelical religion.

We've certainly come far from the days of John F. Kennedy, haven't we? Back when he was running for president, he spent much of his time trying to calm fears of (mainly Protestant) Christian groups that he would be at the beck and call of the Pope. Today politicians, in an attempt to brand themselves, pander with equal fervor to both sectarian and a generic "American Christianity" for electoral gain. To say they wear religiousity on their sleeve is an understatement.

Imagine for a moment the outrage that would ensue if a leading Catholic theologian uttered this phrase in the New York Times. "In the past several years, American Catholics, and I am one of them, have amassed greater political power than at any time in our history." This would rightly viewed with massive suspicion. Or for an absurd thought, what if a Muslim or Jewish scholar said something similar. Muslims and Jews make up only about 2% of the population together in the U.S., so any "amassing" of "political power" by either of these groups in this country is far from becoming reality. Views to the contrary tread heavily on the realms of conspiracy.

Writing this reminds me how these three groups - Catholics, Muslims and Jews - are set aside for special ire in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye, a man steeped in conspiracy theories. This is especially true for Jews, who must by 'The End' of the series of Left Behind books, either convert in the premillennialist apocalyptic worldview, or die.

But enough of this. You get the picture. Marsh's article is illuminating for many other things, including how that "political power" has become entwined with the crusading language of militancy and American nationalism:

Recently, I took a few days to reread the war sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the lead up to the Iraq war. That period, from the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2003, is not one I will remember fondly. Many of the most respected voices in American evangelical circles blessed the president's war plans, even when doing so required them to recast Christian doctrine.

Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, whose weekly sermons are seen by millions of television viewers, led the charge with particular fervor. "We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible," said Mr. Stanley, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. "God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers." In an article carried by the convention's Baptist Press news service, a missionary wrote that "American foreign policy and military might have opened an opportunity for the Gospel in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

As if working from a slate of evangelical talking points, both Franklin Graham, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham, and Marvin Olasky, the editor of the conservative World magazine and a former advisor to President Bush on faith-based policy, echoed these sentiments, claiming that the American invasion of Iraq would create exciting new prospects for proselytizing Muslims. Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the hugely popular "Left Behind" series, spoke of Iraq as "a focal point of end-time events," whose special role in the earth's final days will become clear after invasion, conquest and reconstruction. For his part, Jerry Falwell boasted that "God is pro-war" in the title of an essay he wrote in 2004.

The war sermons rallied the evangelical congregations behind the invasion of Iraq. An astonishing 87 percent of all white evangelical Christians in the United States supported the president's decision in April 2003. Recent polls indicate that 68 percent of white evangelicals continue to support the war. But what surprised me, looking at these sermons nearly three years later, was how little attention they paid to actual Christian moral doctrine. Some tried to square the American invasion with Christian "just war" theory, but such efforts could never quite reckon with the criterion that force must only be used as a last resort. As a result, many ministers dismissed the theory as no longer relevant.

Just why this type of war mongering language has become so popular is due largely to the political pandering to generic "American Christianity" for electoral gain that I mentioned before. It's a crude and disorganized, yet growing, form of American Christian "nationalism." Evangelical religious figures and the politicians that cozy up to their electoral might, have become so used to the language of the crusade, be it in wars abroad, or cultural wars at home, that it becomes second nature to them.

More on Marsh's essay at Hypersnc, Duncan Sheik, Adam Ash, Moderate Voters Blog, the Ready Room, and Andrew Sullivan's continuing coverage of Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms. And finally, some good commentary here at Tom Paine's Corner on America and War.